CHINA – So many teeth but no bite.

The discussion surrounding China’s rapid ascent and its global ambitions prompts a critical question: are concerns about Beijing’s intentions and capabilities justified or misguided? History is akin to a flowing river, and external influences can alter its course, much like contaminants affecting downstream water quality.

The foundations of our contemporary world, marked by increasing global competition, trace back not merely a few years or decades but to intense rivalries of the 20th century and earlier. The clash between revolutionary Marxist communism, epitomized by Stalin’s Soviet Union and subsequently Mao’s People’s Republic of China, and the capitalist West defined much of this period. This ideological confrontation, rooted in perceived exploitation by the ruling elite and colonial expansion, fueled post-war decolonization.

The ensuing Cold War era, with the United States leading the capitalist, Western, liberal democratic world, kept global tensions sub-nuclear but active. Despite occasional proxy conflicts, intelligence agencies engaged in “grey” zone operations, expanding the geopolitical competition. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1990 seemingly marked the triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism, leading to the “End of History.”

Fast forward to the present, and the optimism following the Soviet Union’s demise has given way to a more uncertain future. The current “Cold War” is defined not just by ideological rivalry but by economic, strategic, and demographic competitions. China, under Mao’s leadership, emerges as a juggernaut studying historical lessons and aiming to reshape the global status quo.

The post-World War II economic and strategic order is under siege, with waning confidence in the United States’ capacity as the world’s hegemon. Economic decline in the West, contrasted with China’s dynamism, contributes to global uncertainty. The potential for territorial expansion, especially regarding Taiwan, adds a concerning dimension to the geopolitical landscape.

However, amidst the apprehension, there are nuances to China’s power. The Economist’s analysis emphasizes the need for a balanced perspective. While China appears assertive and hostile, its military shortcomings and economic challenges, including a property crunch and hostility towards the private sector, temper its strength.

Despite concerns, the West, particularly the US-led world order, lacks a comprehensive understanding and intelligence capacity regarding China. This gap offers an opportunity for the US and its allies to strategize. Xi’s consolidation of power faces challenges, both militarily and economically.

China’s military prowess, despite being formidable, has weaknesses. Economic challenges, including a property crisis and a shift in the Communist Party’s stance towards the private sector, hinder growth. The West, including Australia and the United States, must approach China realistically, identifying weaknesses and leveraging them to ensure responsible international conduct.

In shaping the future of the Indo-Pacific, the actions of China, the United States, and allies will play a pivotal role. While cooperation is mutually beneficial, it should not compromise fundamental values. Viewing China realistically and focusing on its vulnerabilities will be crucial in navigating the complexities of this evolving global order. Both the United States and its allies, including Australia, must strike a balance in military capabilities to address regional challenges effectively.

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